The Huffington Post and antivaccinationists

I don’t much like The Huffington Post.

My dislike for The Huffington Post goes way, way back–all the way back to its very beginnings. Indeed, a mere three weeks after Arianna Huffington’s little vanity project hit the blogosphere, I noted a very disturbing trend in its content. That trend was a strong undercurrent of antivaccination blogging, something I wrote about nearly three years ago. At the time, I pointed out how Santa Monica pediatrician to the stars and “vaccine skeptic” Dr. Jay Gordon had found a home there, long with David Kirby, author of the mercury militia Bible Evidence of Harm, and Janet Grilo.

This was right from the beginning.

These antivaccination luminaries were soon joined by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr and more recently by Deirdre Imus, the driving force ramping up the antivaccinationist mercury militia proclivities of aging shock jock Don Imus and whose ignorance and stupidity when it comes to vaccines threaten to rend the fabric of the space-time continuum. (Indeed, if Jenny McCarthy didn’t exist, Deirdre Imus would get my vote for the antivaccinationist who routinely says the most astoundingly ignorant things about science.) Although we don’t hear much from Grilo or Gordon anymore, unfortunately we do hear from Kirby, Imus, and Kennedy on a fairly regular basis, all on The Huffington Post, with the only voice of reason when it comes to vaccines being Arthur Allen, author of Vaccine: The Controversial Story of Medicine’s Greatest Lifesaver, who, unfortunately, has not posted to HuffPo in a long time. It’s not for naught that I’ve dubbed the Huffington Post “Arianna’s Home for Happy Antivaccinationists” and seriously questioned whether it could do a science section.

I’m revisiting this topic because I think I’m starting to understand a bit why this may be the case. Oddly enough, the impetus was Jenny McCarthy’s appearance on Larry King Live last week for Autism Awareness Day, following her breathtakingly self-absorbed and inane article published on CNN.com. Several readers sent me both her article and later the transcript of her appearance on Larry King’s love-fest. Perhaps some of my readers were wondering why I didn’t blog about it, and, before I get to the antivaccinationist blather at HuffPo, you deserve an explanation why. It’s simple.

Jenny McCarthy bores me now.

The reason McCarthy bores me is, quite frankly, because she is so unbearably, unbelievably, and willfully stupid, full of the arrogance of ignorance. Rebutting her brain-dead pronouncements is like fighting the Black Knight–after all his limbs have been cut off, that is. Sure, these days sometimes I’m in the mood to do it, but only when I’m in a really nasty mood, the kind of mood that makes one feel an intense urge to pull the wings off of flies. However, like pulling the wings off of flies, there’s just no challenge to refuting McCarthy’s nonsense. True, it does have to be done sometimes if only because at present McCarthy appears to be the loudest antivaccinationist out there, the one who’s getting the most media attention, but increasingly slapping down her cult pseudoscience has become a chore. After all, look at something like this gem from Jenny:

Evan is now 5 years old and what might surprise a lot of you is that we’ve never been contacted by a single member of the CDC, the American Academy of Pediatrics, or any other health authority to evaluate and understand how Evan recovered from autism. When Evan meets doctors and neurologists, to this day they tell us he was misdiagnosed — that he never had autism to begin with. It’s as if they are wired to believe that children can’t recover from autism.

So where’s the cavalry? Where are all the doctors beating down our door to take a closer look at Evan? We think we know why they haven’t arrived. Most of the parents we’ve met who have recovered their child from autism as we did (and we have met many) blame vaccines for their child’s autism.

We think our health authorities don’t want to open this can of worms, so they don’t even look or listen. While there is strong debate on this topic, many parents of recovered children will tell you they didn’t treat their child for autism; they treated them for vaccine injury.

Against such hunks o’ hunks o’ burnin’ stupid coupled with malignant self-absorption, the gods themselves contend in vain. Or perhaps I should say “in pain,” because pain is what happens to one’s brain when Jenny cranks the Stupid-O-Meter past 11, all the way to 13 or 14–into the realm of stupid that would not just cause a rent in the fabric of the space-time continuum but collapse on itself like a black hole, sucking all intelligence, logic, and rationality into its unquenchable maw of dumb. Jenny can’t believe she isn’t taken seriously by the medical profession? I can’t imagine why. Can you? Could it maybe–just maybe–have anything to do with McCarthy’s ignorance and her extreme arrogance in thinking that her time perusing the University of Google’s Antivaccination Institute qualifies her to bluster, swear at, and yell over experts in the field on Larry King’s show as though she is on equal terms with them in scientific knowledge? Naah! Perish the thought! Or maybe it’s her frequently sweeping denunciations of the CDC and entire vaccine establishment as wanting to “poison” our babies. Naahh, that couldn’t be it, either!

What I find even more disturbing than the ignorance that Jenny McCarthy routinely delivers on the topic of vaccines and autism (such as the “toxins in vaccines” canard) is her apparent belief that she cured her son of autism and that she could make him autistic again if she ever lets up. Yes, Jenny McCarthy is definitely a piece of work these days. In fact, I rather miss the old bimbo, gross-out Jenny of a decade or more ago. She was certainly easier to tolerate than this loud-mouth “warrior mom” incarnation who’s arrogant enough to think that the scientific community should accept her pronouncements that vaccines cause autism and that she has “cured” her son of autism over the conclusions of large, well-designed scientific and epidemiological studies. At least the old gross-out Jenny was occasionally–very occasionally–actually funny and entertaining. At least she didn’t risk harming anything other than the sensitive stomachs of people who might not like to see her barfing for comic effect or being portrayed in a pool of her own menstrual blood. The new Jenny, on the other hand, has a very real power to influence parents not to vaccinate their children, contributing, along with other antivaccinationists, to the return of vaccine-preventable illness.

Too bad Rachel Sklar, the Media & Special Projects Editor of The Huffington Post, doesn’t agree with me. She appears to have been quite impressed with McCarthy’s antics on CNN:

Former MTV star Jenny McCarthy is now an outspoken activist on behalf of parents, ever since her son Evan was diagnosed with autism at age 2. McCarthy was on with King for the full hour, and her passion and fierceness was riveting as she described how parents kept having identical stories about a perfectly healthy child getting immunized, coming down with a fever and never quite being the same again.

What Sklar calls “passion,” I call boorishness. Be that as it may, in particular Sklar seemed impressed with this statement by McCarthy:

I believe that parents’ anecdotal information is science-based information. And when the entire world is screaming the same thing — doctor, I came home. He had a fever. He stopped speaking and then he became autistic. I can’t — I can see if it was just one parent saying this. But when so many — and I speak to thousands of moms every weekend and they’re all standing up and saying the same thing. It’s time to start listening to that. That is science-based information. Parents’ anecdotal is science-based information.

The stupid here really burns (even by Jenny McCarthy standards), and Sklar just eats it up, letting it digest in her gut and be absorbed into her bloodstream to make her stupid too. If Sklar had two neurons remaining to rub together, she’d realize how easy it is to confuse correlation with causation, which is what parents who think that vaccines caused their children’s autism do all that time, no matter how intelligent they are. It’s a very seductive logical fallacy, a normal human failing in reasoning to which we are all prone. Indeed, humans are always mistaking correlation of unrelated incidents with causation, and that’s one reason why the scientific method and epidemiology are so essential to trying to differentiate correlations that are likely to represent causation from those that are not. One reason that the myth that vaccines cause autism is so pervasive is because the first symptoms of autism often occur around the same time that children are getting series of vaccinations. Because in the U.S. this represents hundreds of thousands, if not millions of children, it is not surprising that a a significant number of children diagnosed with autism who regress manifest their regression in close temporal proximity to having received a vaccine or vaccines. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the vaccine(s) caused the regression, and several large epidemiological studies have shown us that there is no epidemiological link between vaccines and autism.

Anecdotal evidence, particularly in cases as emotionally charged as a parent observing her child regress, cannot be definitive. At best, if it’s clearly documented, it might serve as the basis for the generation of hypotheses to be tested–at best. Steve Novella has written a very accessible and useful guide to what the true role of anecdotes in science-based medicine is, and Prometheus has written a series of excellent posts about why testimonial evidence can be particularly deceptive even to very intelligent people. Sklar should read them before she credulously cheers on such idiocy from know-nothings like McCarthy. So should McCarthy, but I have much less hope that she would ever understand them, much less accept that the plural of “anecdotes” is not “data” and that anecdotes are considered a very weak form of scientific evidence, weaker still if they’re poorly documented.

Sklar also cheered on McCarthy’s boorish behavior on the show, behavior that, based on her entire career and her activities since she stopped being an “indigo mom” and started being a “warrior mom” fighting what she seems to think to be the evils of vaccination, should have come as no surprise:

In the second half of the program, two pediatricians joined the program who didn’t believe that there was a link between vaccines and autism, and McCarthy wasn’t having any of it. “Are we considered acceptable losses?” she asked dangerously after a point was raised on the cost-benefit of vaccinations, and what they offered in terms of prevention. “Give my son the measles! I’ll take that over autism any day.” It was also around that point that she called the standard vaccination program “bullshit” without missing a beat.

I just wrote about how unbelievably, incredibly, irredeemably stupid preferring the measles to vaccination against measles is. Given that there is no good evidence that vaccines cause autism, McCarthy’s “preferring” the measles, which can cause encephalitis, deafness, and death, is irresponsible and inexcusable. So is Sklar’s credulous agreement with McCarthy’s pronouncements:

The whole show was riveting and so is the read, if you want to check out the transcript here. I’m with Jenny, 1 in 150 is a staggering number and these dots don’t connect any other way.

There’s no other way to put it: Sklar’s stupid, it burns too. Maybe not at the supernova intensity that McCarthy’s does, but it still burns pretty darned hot. Contrary to the Sklar’s lack of imagination, which clearly keeps her from seeing more than one explanation for this phenomenon, the dots do “connect.” Paul Shattuck showed how the dots “connect,” as did a more recent study (which I may blog about soon). It’s called broadening the diagnostic criteria (which occurred in the early 1990s for autism) and diagnostic substitution. Children who in the past would have been diagnosed with mental retardation or a learning disability are now frequently being diagnosed with autism or autism spectrum disorders, hence the apparent massive apparent increase in autism prevalence since the early 1990s.

The antivaccinationist slant of HuffPo continues, and I’m guessing that Sklar has at least something to do with it. Meanwhile, Sklar’s not the only credulous fool posting glowing reviews about Jenny McCarthy’s CNN performance on HuffPo. We also have Alison Rose Levy mining into arguably even greater depths of stupid about vaccines and autism:

Unfortunately, there’s much that this research focus fails to address. The totality of the human being, the complexity of human health factors, the wide range of health stressors, the multiplier effect when all of these variables interact, not to mention the biochemical individuality of each human being. Yes, each of us is unique.

Testing single vaccine ingredients to refute vaccinations as a major autism contributor is inconclusive, especially given the poor nature of the studies. Vaccines are not single agents.

Imagine consuming several different type of cocktails at once. Each cocktail contains multiple infectious agents, microbes, and metals acting together and creating new and unexamined synergies in interaction with each individual. Our research model doesn’t assess those synergies or predict which individuals are vulnerable.

So when science repeatedly proffers findings that “No, it isn’t this single agent,” rather than proving that vaccinations don’t precipitate autism, what’s demonstrated are the limitations of the modern reductive research approach.

Yes, regular readers will recognize right away that Levy is mindlessly parroting the dreaded “toxin” myth about vaccines. She’s repeating the ideal antivaccinationist fallacy, too. From the perspective of antivaccinationists and their belief that vaccination is too dangerous to continue to be mandatory, the problem with the thimerosal hypothesis as an explanation for the apparently increasing prevalence of autism was always that the hypothesis produced a relatively easily testable hypothesis, a test of which could yield a concrete, inarguable falsification of the hypothesis. If thimerosal were to be removed or drastically reduced in vaccines, then the thimerosal-autism hypothesis would predict that autism prevalence should fall. Well, guess what? Thimerosal was removed from vaccines by late 2001, and autism prevalence has not shown any sign of decreasing, thus refuting the thimerosal-autism hypothesis about as definitively as it can be refuted. Antivaccinationists aren’t about to make that mistake again, hence the origin of the amazing ever-changing “toxins in vaccines” myth, where antivaccinationists can postulate endless “interactions” between various postulated “toxins” in vaccines. Of course, they opine, each and every one of these “interactions” could be what causes autism, intentionally producing such a large number of trivial hypotheses that they can never all be tested and refuted. Even if they could, there’s the “every person is unique” gambit, meant to imply that even though the evidence doesn’t support the contentions that vaccines cause autism it can’t be applied to individual cases.

And don’t even get me started on Levy’s citing Rustum Roy as an “authority” on healing, which really shows where she’s coming from. Remember that Roy is a woo-meister supreme who has justified homeopathy with all sorts of dubious arguments.

Sadly, nearly three years after HuffPo’s start, it’s clear to me that it has not changed its game one whit. True the HuffPo may on occasion allow a blogger who has not drunk the Kool Aid when it comes to claims that vaccines cause autism write a post arguing against a link between vaccines and autism, but that’s just window-dressing. At its core, HuffPo culture appears to remain deeply antivaccinationist. After all, one of its editors is clearly quite sympathetic to Jenny McCarthy while David Kirby, Deirdre Imus, and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (now joined by Alison Rose Levy) crank out antivaccination nonsense. Antivaccinationism is clearly so deeply ingrained in the HuffPo blogging culture that it is not going to be dislodged unless Her Highness herself intervenes, a highly unlikely possibility. Clearly, the next phase in HuffPo’s antivaccination evolution will be to invite Jenny McCarthy to become a regular blogger. It’s coming. Just you wait.

Even worse, she’ll fit right in from day one.